Paul Levy’s Center City Strategy Helps All of Philadelphia

How a clean Rittenhouse Square benefits neighborhoods from Kensington to Cobbs Creek

Last week City Paper had a terrific story on Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, titled “the King of Center City.”

The thrust of the piece is that Levy, a private citizen who’s never held elected office, has through sheer force of will and competence built an organization with the kind of power, influence and taxing authority we usually associate with a government. Anyone who pauses to think a few moments about what Levy and CCD have done over the years would have to agree: Center City’s “ambassador” squads, which are more or less a quasi-private police force; the planned $50 million Dilworth Plaza renovation, which stands to be one of the city’s highest profile public works projects in years; the army of uniformed sidewalk cleaners, out there every day making Center City one of the few sections of town unworthy of the Filthadelphia nickname. And that’s to name just a few of CCD’s endeavors.

You can’t get around the fact that there’s an undemocratic quality to CCD. It is simply true that Levy and outfits like CCD have assumed responsibility for what were once considered basic government functions, functions that cash-strapped municipalities across the nation have cut to the bone. A CCD subsidiary runs a public bus route. The district maintains the concrete concourses beneath Center City. More recently, Levy’s organization has been instrumental in projects outside his business district’s formal boundaries.

And I say thank god for all that. What, after all, is the alternative? Philadelphia already has the highest tax rate of any big city in the nation (with the possible exception of New York), and city government still struggles to provide the basics. The fact of the matter is that getting the government services many of us want now requires an extra-governmental agency like the Center City District. It doesn’t hurt that Levy, unlike Mayor Nutter, doesn’t have to contend with City Council or union work rules on a daily basis. That largely frees him to run the Center City District as he sees fit. And so long as he does that job well enough to satisfy his power-player stacked board of directors, Levy will have an incredibly powerful job for life.

The real problem with the Center City District and Paul Levy is that there are only one of each. Increasingly, Philadelphia is filled with business improvement districts, in neighborhoods rich and poor. But few have had anything like the success of the Center City District, at least in part because none has the financial resources to match those of Center City. That creates inequitable service levels, and raises the question: Why should Center City residents enjoy cleaner and safer streets than other residents? I get the concern, but the question is a little naive. Whether or not the Center City District exists, Rittenhouse Square is going to be safer and cleaner than the intersection of Kensington and Somerset.

And over the last 20 years we’ve seen what Center City’s renaissance has meant for Philadelphia as a whole. It is positively vital for all neighborhoods that the core of a big, older city like Philadelphia be an attractive destination for employers, tourists, and yes, wealthy residents (if nothing else for the tax revenue they generate). Perhaps more than any other single individual, Levy is responsible for what Center City has become. Long live the king.